First, I will preface this article by admitting its total lack of academic citation. However, I welcome comments that can refute opinion stated as fact through the use of citation. Also, it should be noted that, for centuries, despite their amazing progress at technological advancement, Eastern civilizations such as the Chinese did not, for a very long time, appear to feel a need to change their civilization commensurate with their technical prowess in the same way we have in the West.
Nevertheless, after much study and thought on the matter of humanity evolving past a cultural reliance on religion over the application of reason, I have become convinced that ongoing history of the relevance of religion in Western civilization (and, eventually, world-wide) goes like this:
- Pagan religions have real relevance in the oral traditions of tribal people living off the land. They provide a memorable kind of almanac that encodes useful collective wisdom about farming, the seasons, hunting, the weather, etc. Pretty much everyone has a hard scrabble life. Tribes that look after the orphans are the only ones that survive global cataclysms.
- As villages grow into city states grow into empires; religion remains deeply ingrained but less and less relevant to most people's survival. It becomes a kind of superstitious sports team mentality. Economic classes begin to form and the leader class discovers that this ingrained but meaningless religion is useful to maintain and increase their inequitable power. So useful, in fact, that they are happy to buy into it themselves - as long as it serves to maintain and increase their privileges - especially if it conquers the Great Equalizer: death.
- Monotheistic religions become a subversion of the religions of the privileged - offering an apocalyptic approach to the unfair, short and unsatisfying lot of the masses.
- Rapidly, the privileged usurp the monotheistic paradigm because living for the afterlife makes the masses pliable to their fate in the unfair, earthly realm, since they will receive their rewards after they die. Thus, the masses once again abdicate the power in their numbers; convinced this life is a sham at best.
- Evidence that things can get better for everyone with the advent of mass media (the printing press), etc. leads to the Enlightenment, and the French, American, and the Industrial Revolutions. Democracy evolves over time to include a middle-class who slowly become more and more apathetic about religion as their lives get better and longer here on Earth. In poorer nations, forced equality (see Communism) fails, since it is usurped in the same way as religion.
- The Cold War and other potentially cataclysmic byproducts of the progress spurred by the Enlightenment scares the crap out of the less powerful and undereducated in the interim between the rule of the few and true meritocratic democracy. This fear is exploited by the privileged in a last gasp effort to cling to power.
- Eventually, barring an indiscriminate global cataclysm (no guarantees there), the 'man behind the curtain' will be exposed. Reason and education will finally supplant religion and tradition, and the masses will finally realize that, managed properly, the Earth's resources are sufficient to sustain a population that can govern itself in a meritocratic democracy where basic needs are considered rights and effective ideas are looked to come from almost anyone.
Considering that our brain to body ratio has only been bigger than those of other primates for a mere 300,000 years or so, and 70,000 years ago there were only 2,000 of us - within that scale - I am reasonably hopeful this century could own the tipping point that future historians will mark as the Reenlightenment (or some other similar demarcation.)
Keep in mind, we only invented writing around 6,000 years ago. The printing press (in the West) is less than six hundred years old. The Constitution of the United States is under 250 years old. The U.N. is just over sixty. The internet went 'public' in the last twenty years or so. Mud hut villages in Africa now have cellphone coverage. Things are moving more forward than back.
Religion will not survive long in a world of people who are well-fed, housed, literate, etc. This century offers the first real opportunity for that to be a nearly global reality.
Perhaps this is overly simplistic and naively optimistic. Certainly, humanity has plenty of chances to blow it big time. But if you examine the overall, ongoing trends of the role of violence in our lives, our actual ability to produce food and shelter, etc. we have done astonishingly better than most think. Part of our sense, for example, that violence in the educated world is appallingly high has more to do with our relatively newly found propensity to be appalled by violence than the statistical reality re: the number of violent events in a person's life. And look at the fact that over 15% Americans will say they are not religious when surveyed. This is astounding and unprecedented. Roll in the apatheists, agnostics, 'spiritualists', and the genuinely pluralistic, and you begin to discover that - in societies where the standard of living and education is high, religion starts to die - even America.
Religion is more mortal than humanity in the end. One day we will drop it like a child of nine drops Santa. It is actually more satisfying to discover that generosity, love and compassion can originate with us rather than with a mythical being. It is actually more gratifying to face the future with curiosity and courage than with certainty and faith.